EXCLUSIVE: Medical journals expand investigation into possible misconduct in heart research

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) – Three medical journals recently launched independent investigations into possible data manipulation in heart studies led by Temple University researchers, Reuters has learned, adding new scrutiny to an investigation of misconduct by the university and the US government

The Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry are investigating five papers written by Temple scientists, the papers told Reuters.

A third journal owned by the Journal of American College of Cardiology (JACC), last month withdrawn an article by Temple researchers on their website after determining that there was evidence of data manipulation. The retracted paper had originally concluded that the widely used anticoagulant Xarelto could have a healing effect on hearts.

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“We are committed to preserving the integrity of the academic record,” Elsevier, which owns the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology and publishes the other two journals on behalf of medical societies, said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Philadelphia-based Temple began its own investigation in September 2020 at the request of the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which oversees investigations of misconduct in federally funded research, according to a lawsuit filed by one of the researchers.

Temple’s research involves 15 articles published between 2008 and 2020 and supported by grants from the US National Institutes of Health, according to court records. Nine of the studies were overseen by Abdel Karim Sabri, a professor at the Temple Cardiovascular Research Center.

His colleague Steven Houser, senior associate dean for research at Temple and former president of the American Heart Association, is listed as the author of five studies supervised by Sabri. Houser was also involved in four additional documents under scrutiny.

Houser sued in federal court last year to stop the university’s research, saying Temple was seeking to discredit him and steal his discoveries.

Houser “has not engaged in scientific or other misconduct, has not falsified data, and has not engaged in any wrongdoing with any other scientist or academic,” Houser’s lawyer, Christopher Ezold, said in a statement to Reuters. Houser helped review and edit the text portions of the studies supervised by Sabri and did not provide or analyze the data, Ezold said.

A Temple spokesman said the university is “aware of the allegations and is reviewing them.” He did not comment further or discuss interactions with medical journals. ORI also declined to comment. Sabri and Houser did not respond to questions.

Several investigative experts said Houser, as one of multiple co-perpetrators, cannot be assumed to be involved in any potential misconduct. Ultimate responsibility for a study generally rests with the supervising scientist and any investigators who contribute the specific data under scrutiny.

EXPRESSION OF CONCERN

The investigations highlight concerns about possible fabrication in medical research and the federal funding that supports it. A Reuters research published in June found that the NIH spent hundreds of millions of dollars on heart stem cell research despite allegations of fraud against several leading scientists in the field.

Temple’s research also reveals a lack of consensus within the scientific community about how such concerns should be communicated, to prevent potentially bad science from informing future work and funding, according to half a dozen research experts interviewed by Reuters.

Temple did not notify medical journals that he was conducting an investigation at the request of the US government agency, the journals told Reuters. They said they began their investigations independently.

Manufacturer of Xarelto, the Janssen Pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), also told Reuters that supervising investigators at Temple did not notify the company of the investigation or JACC magazine’s retraction, although two of its employees were listed as co-authors of the article. Janssen said his contribution to the paper was not questioned in the retraction.

In some misconduct investigations, universities have notified scientific journals that an investigation is underway. That has allowed journals to issue an “expression of concern” about specific studies, telling readers there may be reason to question the results. If there is a finding of data manipulation, the journals would be expected to retract the article.

None of the journals that published the articles under Temple’s scrutiny have issued expressions of concern. They did not comment to Reuters why they decided not to do so.

“It’s murky because of the lack of resources for these investigations, there’s no standardization around the world,” said Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.

Other journals do not review the work of the Temple researchers. Five ORI-flagged articles were published in the AHA journals Circulation, Circulation: Heart Failure, and Circulation Research, where Houser is a senior consulting editor.

The AHA said neither the US agency nor Temple had notified it of its investigation, and it does not consider itself responsible for further investigation. The AHA said it had issued a data correction on one article at the request of the authors. The paper was the only study under scrutiny to list Houser as a supervising researcher.

“The American Heart Association is not a regulatory body or agency,” the AHA said in a statement sent to Reuters.

FEDERAL FUNDING

Researchers and their institutions may be forced to return federal funds that supported work tainted by data manipulation.

Houser has received nearly $40 million in NIH funding and Sabri has received nearly $10 million since 2000, according to a Reuters analysis of NIH grants. Houser’s attorney said none of her NIH funding supported the documents overseen by Sabri.

JACC magazine said in its retraction of the Xarelto investigation that it started its investigation after receiving a complaint from a reader. In response, the researchers issued a correction to some image data in the article, which was overseen by Sabri and listed Houser as an author.

However, the magazine said the correction raised further concerns, prompting it to hire an unnamed outside expert to review them.

According to the retraction notice, the expert review found evidence of manipulation in seven images using a technique known as Western blot, which determines concentrations of a specific protein in cells or tissues under different experimental conditions. As a result, the magazine said its ethics board voted to retract the article.

NIH, ORI and Temple declined to comment on whether Temple would be required to return federal funds from work retracted by the JACC publication.

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Reporting by Marisa Taylor and Brad Heath; Edited by Michele Gershberg and Edward Tobin

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

brad heath

Thomson Reuters

Washington-based reporter covering criminal justice, law, and more, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and a member of the Virginia Bar.

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